Is 20-odd years enough to make a lasting impact with art? In the case of Carlos Batts, the answer is absolutely yes.
Since he was 16, he had the name of his company all mapped out: C. Batts FLY. At Franklin High School in Reisterstown, Maryland, he ran with the goth kids, devoured horror movies, sported death metal band T-shirts, and cultivated an early love for photography.
Working a part-time job on the weekends, it took Batts weeks to save enough money to buy his first camera, a Pentax K1000, which he lugged to punk shows to take pictures from the pit. Soon he was shooting album covers.
Batts had always been inspired by the gothic aesthetic, so it was no surprise that his photography went in that direction. By his 20s, he was setting up lights in his house, shooting dark fetish photos of friends of friends. He landed freelancing photography gigs with fetish magazines Taboo and Leg World.
But like any good artist, Batts was rejected by every art gallery in Baltimore. So in 1999, he left for Los Angeles, where “there are more opportunities, and people are more willing to believe your bullshit.”
Little did Batts know, a chance encounter at a gallery opening in Echo Park in 2000 would change the course of his life. That is where he met then-barista April Flores, the woman who would become his wife and muse. But at first, he was just amazed by her flawless skin. He wanted — no, needed — to photograph her.
He had always been turned off by the women who saw posing for him as nothing more than a job — not art. When he shot Flores, there was an immediate spark. No matter how he lit her, or what he dressed her in, every picture was perfect.
Batts’ first book, Wild Skin, came about after he wooed a German publisher with a portfolio of kinky, garishly-lit photos of racially-diverse women of all body types. In fact, when his publisher flew in from Munich to edit the book, he just happened to choose a photo of April Flores for the cover.
The years that followed found him publishing two more books, Crazy Sexy Hollywood, and American Gothic. Along the way, he directed music videos and indie films, shot album covers and porn box covers, exhibited his work internationally, and even landed the cover for a UK edition of Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff. He drew, painted, designed sets, made collages, and sculpted.
He clung to his art fiercely; he once stated that he would rather shoot school yearbook photos or weddings than create something that he hated. And so, when his muse gained interest in expressing herself with moving images, he followed suit. But he always stuck with his own aesthetic, culled from years of experimentation with light:
My intent was never to do hard-core. I’m not even in the league. I wasn’t technically inclined to light a room like that. I didn’t even know how begin to light a big, shiny, bright white girl. I would set up four hot bulbs and let it go. Get some mood in there. Make her become more of a character, and not just like a thing.
Really slick porno is lit like you’d light a lawn mower. It’s like shooting a Sears catalog. There’s no depths as far as personality. You’re not engaged. She’s just a brightly lit vagina. I could never do that.
In all, he directed just over 10 erotic films, including Behind the Red Door and Dangerous Curves, as well as the porn documentary trifecta of Alter Ego, Voluptuous Life, and Glamazons. Batts’ films are all about style, using sound, mood, atmosphere, lighting, wardrobe, and diverse talent to tell the story. Dangerous Curves won “Most Deliciously Diverse Cast” at the 2010 Feminist Porn Awards, and April Flores World won “Sexiest Star Feature” in 2013.
In 2009, when April Flores’ vulva was molded for a sex toy, Batts came up with the ingenious idea to have famous artists paint plaster molds of her vulva for an art exhibit called the April Flores Toy Show. It was yet another example of how, for many, it became hard to imagine Batts without Flores, or Flores without Batts. His unique point of view and love for his wife shown through every time he collaborated with her.
Calling art “the strongest form of activism,” Batts believed whole-heartedly in the transformative and important nature of what he did. Yet, he was soft-spoken and never pretentious. Tristan Taormino recounted a conversation she had with him about his place in the feminist porn movement.
. . . he wanted to be respectful and was especially wary of taking up space as a guy in this growing revolution . . . We had this amazing discussion where he talked about what he believed, what he valued, and how he could claim the label ‘feminist.’ He didn’t want to say it until he was clear about what it meant to him and what he could bring to the party. He was beginning to shape and articulate how the art he was creating could be specifically feminist, and it was pretty cool to be in on that process.
He thanked me later for helping him talk it through, but what he didn’t realize is that our talk was just as enlightening for me. It made me more aware of my own place in the movement as a white woman who identifies as a feminist. That was Carlos: he pushed me to look at my privilege simply by his openness and willingness to talk about his struggles and beliefs. He gave me gifts like that a lot. He wasn’t always the loudest voice in the room, but when he opened his mouth, it was clear how fierce and brave he was about challenging the status quo.
Batts and Flores were guests on Tristan Taormino’s Sex Out Loud radio show last year, speaking about how they met, why they loved making art, and the April Flores Toy Show.
Batts’ last major artistic contribution to the world was a monumental one: a photography book — his fourth — entitled Fat Girl. Released in July of this year, the book chronicles twelve years with April Flores. Reclaiming the phrase “fat girl,” it offers an exceptional look into the fearless, intimate, playful, and romantic relationship the two shared.
Carlos Batts passed away on October 22nd at the age of 40. Donations can be sent to the Carlos Batts Memorial Fund.